George Jean Nathan was a long-time associate of H.L. Mencken. They founded the Smart Set, premier literary journal (belles lettres) of its day, and then the American Mercury. Nathan wrote that Mencken turned more to politics in the latter journal, which may explain his departure as co-editor not long after the magazine was founded. Nonetheless he continued to write for it as drama critic and into the 1940s.
Smart Set was a joint venture with publisher Alfred Knopf and is remembered for its witty, sparkling articles and introduction of Jazz Era writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.
Nathan, a Cornell graduate, had started in general journalism and specialized in theatre reviews. This interest continued through his life, perhaps assisted by his reputation as a ladies man and boulevardier.
In The Judge, another literary and theatrical-oriented review, he gives a half-facetious review (1928) of the beer or other drinks available at theatrical locales in European cities. Such articles were of interest to Americans whose thirst was assuaged at most only by bootlegged or home-made Prohibition brews. These pieces would have been read longingly by those pining for the return of saloons and beer gardens, who had an idealized notion of the beers of the old country.
They were perhaps to be disappointed in that, a few exceptions apart, Nathan was less than impressed by the famous brews of Europe, at least as served at the theatre bars. Even the Champagne in France struck him as inferior – but not in the West End, as the English always made it their business to choose the best.
He doesn’t even mention English beer. As I wrote earlier, this is of a piece with the Mittel Europa inclinations of the New York-centric critics, many of them of Jewish, German, or other European Continental background.
I suspect that Nathan, nearing 50 when he wrote the piece below, was suffering from that malaise called – it’s not what it used to be, one that afflicts the beer-aware as they reach a certain age shall we say. In this case, it’s beer, in another’s, the taste of Beaujolais as he or she recalls it from 30 years ago. Or the steaks back then. Or Napa cabernet.
It was always better back in the day, you know. Through the history of comestibles you read this, so it must be true.
On the other hand, Nathan implies, as did Mencken and others in their circle (e.g. Carl Van Vechten, James Huneker), that Pilsner Urquell remained of Olympian quality. Even Germany, the cradle of fine lager, always had to admit the special merits of Urquell, perversely an import. The topaz nonesuch, Nathan called it.